Walter Benjamin’s Relational Concepts: Audible Signposts Beyond European Man
I once had a conversation with the Chancellor of a German university. He asked me what I was studying, and I told him I was doing some research on Philippine literature. With all the innocence in the world, he nonchalantly asked me, “Why? Is there much of it?” I was rather taken aback, but I replied, “Much more than you can read in your lifetime.”
In parallel with Benedict Anderson’s use of the phrase “the unrewarded” to refer to those writers, literatures, cultures, and regions which have been “passed over” by the Nobel Prize, we may also reflect on the concept of the “unread” or the “untranslated.” 1 But before this, perhaps we can dwell on the similar concept of the “forgotten” in relation to Walter Benjamin’s idea of the “unforgettable” (unvergeßlich), which he discussed in his essay on “The Task of the Translator” (“Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers,” 1923).2According to Benjamin, the word “unforgettable” is an example of a relational concept (Relationsbegriffe). What he probably means by this is that in order to be understood, such a concept must conventionally refer to or be related to a subject. That is to say, one can only speak of something unforgettable in relation to a subject who can remember it. Something can only be unforgettable for a particular someone, someone who can utter the words, “This has truly been an unforgettable experience.”
Benjamin thinks, however, that this is a deficient understanding of relational concepts. According to him, counterintuitive as it may be, the meaning of some relational concepts can best be understood when not exclusively placed in connection with Menschen. Before proceeding, it is important to make some remarks about the German word Mensch and its plural form, Menschen. Though the German word Mensch is often translated as “man” in English, it is not strictly equivalent, since Mensch is not gendered and so also means “human,” “human being,” or “person.” German has the word Mann, which is the strict equivalent of “man” in English. The plural form Menschen can therefore be translated as “people” or “human beings.” However, in order to simplify the discussion and to drive home a crucial point, we will here sometimes be using the English word “man” or “men” to translate Mensch in its singular and plural forms. Google Translate, for example, renders the politically incorrect but famous English phrase, “Rights of Man” as “Rechte des Menschen” in German, as well as the French “droits de l’homme” as “Menschenrechte.”
We can therefore accordingly say that Benjamin thought that the meaning of some relational concepts can best be understood when not exclusively put in connection with man. What Benjamin means by this is that something which is really unforgettable, a life or a moment in that life, does not lose an iota of its unforgettability even when it has been forgotten by everyone. Its unforgettability remains a true predicate despite having been totally forgotten. It is just that, according to Benjamin, human beings were not up to the challenge (Forderung) that this unforgettability presented to them.
This relational concept, understood according to Benjamin as detached from human beings, therefore subsists in being connected to God’s memory; God is the subject who always lives up to the challenge of remembering. It is therefore in a sphere above or beyond the human where the completely forgotten unforgettable is always remembered, where the tragically lost is saved or redeemed. But what if we tried to understand this in a different way? What if the forgotten unforgettable was not remembered by God but by those who are considered to be Nichtmenschen or “not human beings”? What if that which remembers is not above man but below him?
Benjamin published his essay on translation in 1923, the same year that Adolf Hitler staged the so-called Beer Hall Putsch in his first failed bid to seize power. For Hitler and the Nazis, non-Aryans or members of inferior races were considered Untermenschen (undermen). The distinction between Menschen and Untermenschen was therefore in currency in the German language well before the time Benjamin was writing. This is not to say that Benjamin, himself a Jew, was in any way sympathetic to the violently racist beliefs of the Nazis. Communists, Slavs, and Jews were the major targets of the epithet Untermenschen, all considered subhumans that were either to be enslaved or exterminated. However, the violent racism of the Nazis was not unique to them. In fact, their white supremacist ideology consciously borrowed from the centuries-long theory and practice of European colonialism and imperialism; they were also inspired by the practices of racial segregation in the contemporary United States.3 Racism is the ideological substratum of the various colonialisms in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Even the outwardly more benign and progressive—but still inescapably racist—forms of European universalism, such as Hegel’s philosophy of history, could not completely escape this ideology. Nietzsche provides an important link between this discursive world and Benjamin’s ruminations on memory. For Nietzsche, the Übermensch (overman) has the power of actively forgetting (aktive Vergesslichkeit) the past; it is only the lower form of human being, the Untermensch, that refuses to forget or actively chooses to remember.4 Needless to say, the idea of memory is closely intertwined with history.
To illustrate, one can refer to the Philippine-American War (1899–1902). Hundreds of thousands of Filipinos died in this colonial war of aggression by the United States against a country which had won its independence from Spain after a hard-fought revolution. This brutal invasion is often called America’s “forgotten war.”5 In fact, it is probably true to say that this war has, for the most part, been forgotten by the great majority of Americans. Following Benjamin, we might say that the fact that Americans have forgotten the Philippine-American War does not diminish its innate unforgettability. However, unlike Benjamin, we would not need to refer this relational concept to God as a subject of His remembering. What if the real subjects and custodians of this memory were the Filipinos whom the American invaders considered as their racial inferiors, lower men? What if the man (Mensch) that has forgotten the unforgettable in Benjamin is read instead as “European man” or even “Europe” for short? We can thus attempt to rewrite Benjamin’s thesis as follows: some relational concepts can best be understood when not exclusively connected with European man. What has been forgotten in European universal history must therefore be remembered by those who make up the peoples that have been invaded, colonized, and enslaved by the white colonizers. It is they who can live up to the challenge of remembering their own histories which have been erased, occluded, and forgotten in the universal history of Europe.
By putting unforgettability in parallel with translatability, Benjamin seems able to assert with some confidence that translatability, like unforgettability, is not diminished even when a literary work is in fact not translated. However, a major difference between the relational concepts of unforgettability and translatability—aside from the fact that one is negatively expressed while the other positively—is that forgetting implies having known or remembered something in the first place, whereas translatability does not at all imply that something was already translated in the past and will be translated again. What Benjamin implies here is a somewhat different but also anamnestic premise: that translatability points to a prior unity or kinship of all languages, prior to a mythical Fall, which has been lost to us but can be recovered, in a way, through translation. Each translation gives us a glimpse of what Benjamin calls the “pure language” (reine Sprache) which is the distillation of the mode of intention of all languages, all at the same time.
Since it can be presumed that innumerable texts in the world bear the quality of translatability and yet are untranslated by what Benjamin simply calls “man,” this pure language is once again something beyond the human. However, if we once again replace “man” with “European,” we can arrive at the more concrete and historical idea that the property of translatability is not diminished even if a work has never been translated into a European language. Benjamin seems unaware that the massive translational gap between the (major) languages of Europe and the languages of non-Europe constitutes the fundamental ontological breach which prevents any approach to the pure language. Translation, understood Eurocentrically, is exclusively the translation of chosen texts, sometimes from non-European languages but mostly from European languages, into (other) European languages. Untranslated texts from outside Europe remain unreadable for most Europeans, though they may remain readable in their places of origin. This allows us to reinterpret the puzzling first sentence of Benjamin’s essay where he writes that it is not fruitful for understanding a work of art to view it in relation to its receiver (den Aufnehmenden). When Benjamin, in addition, writes that, “No poem is intended for the reader” (kein Gedicht gilt dem Leser), he uses the word “gelten.”6 This verb may mean “to apply to someone,” “to be directed to someone,” or to be “valid” or have “value” for someone. A work of art therefore remains as such even if European man cannot rise to the challenge of being someone for whom it is something of value. It remains a work of art even if its aesthetic qualities and values are totally unintelligible to the European reader and thus remain unrewarded.
By detaching the relational concepts of unforgettability, translatability, and even readability (Lesbarkeit) from the purportedly universal man, Benjamin is able to trace the limits of this universality. However, this does not push him so far as to question the universality of this “man” of which European philosophy speaks. What is not remembered by Europe is therefore forgotten tout court. What is not translated by Europe is therefore totally unread. Works of art which are not valued by European civilization receive no valuation at all. European man thinks that what he does not know, does not exist. Though Benjamin would not deny that, outside of Europe, there is the unforgettable, the translatable, the valuable, and the readable, he nevertheless cannot imagine other non-European subjects who would be the legitimate and genuine addressees of these relational concepts. In the firm grip of the myth of the European universal, the pre-Marxist Benjamin could not conceive of the actualization of a more genuine human universality, a truer world literature, beyond the false universality of Europe. That Benjamin projects the fulfillment and redemption of these potentialities to a utopian sphere beyond the human means that he too, immersed as he is in European universality, cannot see or is blind to other human subjects who can also remember, translate, and read. However, to his great merit and as opposed to complacent Europe, he can hear them however faintly in each relational concept. Each one is an audible signpost beyond European man. They point towards a center of which Europe is only the periphery.
Ramon Guillermo is a Professor at the Center for International Studies (CIS) at the University of the Philippines Diliman. His current research projects are on the transmission, dissemination, circulation, reception, and translation of radical texts and ideas in Southeast Asia using techniques and approaches from translation studies and digital humanities. He is the author of several books which include Translation and Revolution: A Study of Jose Rizal’s Guillermo Tell (Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2009), Pook at Paninindigan: Kritika ng Pantayong Pananaw (Site and Standpoint: A Critique of Pantayong Pananaw) (The University of the Philippines Press, 2009) and the novel Ang Makina ni Mang Turing (Mister Turing’s Machine) (The University of the Philippines Press, 2013).
1 Benedict Anderson, “The unrewarded: Notes on the Nobel Prize for Literature,” New Left Review, 80 (March-April 2013), pp. 99–108.1
2 Walter Benjamin, “Tableaux parisiens”: Deutsche Obertragung mit einem Vorwort uber die Aufgabe des Obersetzers, von Walter Benjamin, Heidelberg, 1923/2017, pp. 253–63 (“The Task of the Translator,” trans. Harry Zohn, in Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings (eds), Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings vol. 1, 1913–1923, Cambridge, MA, 1996).2
3 Domenico Losurdo, Liberalism: A Counter-History, London/New York, 2011, pp. 337–39.3
4 Friedrich Nietzsche, Jenseits von Gut und Böse / Zur Genealogie der Moral, Leipzig, 1886/1999, p. 291 (trans. The Essential Nietzsche: Beyond Good and Evil and The Genealogy of Morals, New York, 2017).4
5 Stanley Karnow, “America’s Forgotten War in the Philippines,” the New York Times, April 1, 1989, https://www.nytimes.com/1989/04/01/opinion/americas-forgotten-war-in-the-philippines.html, accessed April 4, 2022. 5
6 Benjamin, “Tableaux parisiens,”: Deutsche Obertragung mit einem Vorwort uber die Aufgabe des Obersetzers, von Walter Benjamin, p. 253. 6
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